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Welcome to SPORT [Stats Perform’s Overall Review of Things], our weekly review of the Premier League. Inspired by numbers, written in words.

By: Duncan Alexander

Spread: Out
Spreading out performances is one of the most important things that league champions do. Liverpool’s monster lead over Manchester City last season was largely because they knew how to husband their goals and their performances, while City were smashing Watford 8-0 one week and then dropping points to all and sundry the next. That ability seems to have left Jurgen Klopp’s team in 2020-21, though, with the club having already dropped more points than they did in the whole of 2019-20 and with a dire return of one point from three games over the festive period. Just four games ago Liverpool went to Crystal Palace and scored seven (7) goals from an xG of 2.56, yet in the three games since Klopp’s men have racked up an xG of 4.41 but scored just once. That is partly because they have struggled to get shots on target (seven in those three games) but that xG shows they’re still creating reasonable opportunities. As it stands only Manchester United have a points-per-game rate of over 2.0 this season, so we are probably looking at a required total of around 79-83 points to be league champions. If so, Liverpool have plenty of room to recover from their painful Christmas, but with United next up for them, it’s time to pull out a performance like Leicester (13 shots on target) or Tottenham (11) before the rot sets in. Since Cristiano Ronaldo left English football in 2009 only one club (Manchester City in 2019) has retained the Premier League title so it was always going to be a big ask of Liverpool, especially once they suffered injuries to so many key players, but “there or thereabouts” at the halfway stage of the season was always enough for most managers in the old days, and in this most old fashioned of seasons, that’s pretty much where Liverpool will be.

Close Encounters
You don’t have to be some sort of league table expert to know by looking at the league table that the Premier League is tight this season. Even the wild spread of games in hand is redolent of the old days (though even with the country locked down again it still feels unlikely any club will end their season like WBA did in 1912… see below). But that lack of uniformity makes it hard to work out how low down we can go to count teams in or out of the title race. Chelsea in ninth? But then you need to include West Ham who have the same number of points from the same number of games, and if West Ham then why not Arsenal and/or Leeds who are just three points behind. Can a team simultaneously be in a relegation battle and in the hunt for the title? In early January 2021, maybe. Let’s discard extreme outliers like Arsenal and Leeds and focus on Chelsea, who certainly have the squad to pull themselves back into the hunt, if not the form. 26 points from 17 games is not great but there have been six occasions when a team with a record like this or worse than this have won the title, including Chelsea themselves in 1954-55 (W5 D6 L6 at this stage) and Liverpool in 1981-82 (W6 D6 L5), the latter being the famous “12th at Christmas, champions in May” season that was the “it’s a marathon not a sprint” origin story. So maybe we do have a 9+ team title race, although the possibility that Manchester City are going to win their final 23 games and end on 98 points cannot be ruled out either. We’re living in an age of great uncertainty.

Super Smashing Replaced
The first Premier League game of 2021 saw David Moyes win his first game at Goodison Park as a visiting manager, as West Ham’s surprisingly upbeat season continued. Tomas Soucek, the quietly effective tall man, sealed the victory but there was more positive input from Jarrod Bowen and Saïd Benrahma, the two clearest examples of the Hammers’ current policy to recruit sensibly from the EFL. Both have the sort of work ethic that Moyes’ best teams are founded on, with Benrahma leading the game in distanced covered (12.6 km) and average speed (7.93). Bowen was less eye-catching this week but even if he’d have put in a man-of-the-match performance he still wouldn’t have been surprised to be substituted as that’s something that’s happened 15 times in 16 starts this season. If Bowen avoids both injury and the apparent ability to complete 90 minutes then he looks set to shatter Steed Malbranque’s record of being substituted 26 times in 2009-10. Of all the myriad Premier League records, this one being broken in the pandemic season seems reassuringly understandable.

Big Problems
Big name Big Manager coming into a struggling midlands club in an era containing a slightly surprising performance from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer? I’ve seen it happen.